Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I will be speaking on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021 on behalf of the member for Barton. She of course would do a far better job than me in presenting Labor's view on this bill but is impeded today by technological problems. If only Australia had a first-rate national broadband network, you would be able to hear from the member for Barton rather than me!
I move the second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1) notes many families would not need these changes if the Prime Minister had done his job on quarantine and vaccine roll-out;
(2) further notes the Government's delay in providing certainty about Paid Parental Leave rules in relation to both Jobkeeper and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment; and
(3) calls on the Government to ensure that families that rely on Paid Parental Leave are not left worse off".
This isn't the first time in the 46th Parliament that we have discussed changes to the national paid parental leave scheme. These changes are a reflection of the frustration that many of the recipients of paid parental leave will be feeling amidst a year of intense frustration for so many Australian households—those who are angry about the slow vaccine rollout and the quarantine failures, those who are frustrated at the Morrison government's lockdowns stopping them seeing loved ones and those who, as my kids have at times, have said to their parents, 'Mum, Dad, can we have another home-school teacher?'
The fact is that these are very hard times for Australian families.
The Paid Parental Leave scheme is a Labor legacy, a proud initiative of the Rudd and Gillard governments, which is taken up by parents of around half of the 300,000 children born in Australia each year. It allows parents to take time off while staying connected to their workplace, by providing 18 weeks of payments at a rate based on the national minimum wage of $772.55 per week, a total of $13,905.90. There are two payments in the scheme: parental leave pay and dad and partner pay. The second, I believe, is somewhat underrated, and there's good research right now indicating that it's possible to close the gender pay gap by ensuring that there is greater equity in parental leave. The so-called daddy months which have been put in place in a range of Scandinavian countries and Germany seem to narrow the gender pay gap. It is an important finding and an important consideration in a week in which we've discovered that the gender pay gap has indeed widened under the Morrison government.
Eligibility for the Paid Parental Leave scheme requires a person to have worked for around one day a week—330 hours in 10 of the last 13 months. A recipient cannot have had a break from work for more than 12 weeks. Those who don't meet the paid parental leave work test may be eligible for family tax benefit. When the pandemic was ramping up in March last year and lockdowns were announced, the government appropriately changed the rules so periods on JobKeeper counted as work. It did so by creating an exemption so people could remain eligible if they passed an extended work test which required working 10 out of the last 20 months. But those amendments came seven months after the first lockdown in March 2020. That was an unnecessarily slow response from the government. Labor and many community groups had pointed out to the government that it needed to tweak the Paid Parental Leave scheme, but the government took seven months to act, causing unnecessary anxiety for Australian families and a family tax benefit debt for families who considered themselves to be ineligible over that seven-month period.
That change to the work test ended with JobKeeper in March 2021, but we had Melbourne's third lockdown in February and the fourth starting in May, and those families had no certainty that they would manage to pass the work test for paid parental leave. The government is now proposing to make the period of time spent on the COVID disaster payment count towards the Paid Parental Leave scheme work test, which is effectively the same as the arrangement for JobKeeper last year. This time the change would be made for individuals who live or work in a Commonwealth declared COVID-19 hotspot and are eligible for the COVID-19 disaster payment. We've been advised that the enabling rules will ensure that parents relying on state government business support will also be eligible.
This amendment is necessary because, without it, parents who cannot meet the work test because of lockdowns would otherwise lose access to paid parental leave. But the government has been characteristically slow to act, so the new provisions would take effect from 3 June this year, that being the date of the Prime Minister's announcement of the COVID-19 disaster payment. That was a while back—almost three months ago. It's taken three months for the government to finally, again, be shamed into offering support for working families suffering under lockdown. This has been a slow response which the government is now looking to push through the parliament. Labor is happy to facilitate the rapid passage of this bill. But why has it taken this long? Why wasn't the government bringing this bill into the parliament months ago?
The government may also like to consider reaching out to those families who thought they weren't eligible for the Paid Parental Leave scheme because of the work test and now assist them in applying. That sort of action by the Department of Social Services would be helpful for many Australian families. There will be many parents who claimed family tax benefit in the meantime thinking they were ineligible for the work test. Again they are likely to have incurred a Commonwealth debt, the same problem that arose last year, and I call on the government to manage such debts sensitively.
Families have been doing it very tough over the last 18 months. The Australian Institute of Family Studies carried out research that found that, in the first lockdown, there was a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety and financial stress for many families, and that many parents have been struggling to manage. Seven out of 10 parents reported they were either actively or passively caring for children while they worked. And, while multitasking has led to some lighter moments, with children interrupting Zoom meetings, it has also led to considerable stress, the bulk of which has been borne by mothers. We know that there's a growing body of research suggesting that lockdowns have widened the gender pay gap, particularly by holding back the progress of working women. We know women are five times more likely to take on the primary caring role and to be caught in a juggling act between work and kids. I can't say that without a shout-out to my own wife, Gweneth, who, while I'm standing here in the parliament, is homeschooling our three wonderful little boys—
indeed—and who is, in doing so, bearing a greater portion of the burden of COVID-19 lockdown. Perhaps I will make it up to her next week, but I suspect I won't manage to even the ledger appropriately.
The changes, as I've mentioned, only affect people who are working in a Commonwealth declared hot spot, but if you have been affected by lockdowns in other areas then you are not eligible for these changes and your access to the Paid Parental Leave scheme may be denied because you were stood down and the government hasn't recognised the changed circumstances. Who might that affect? It could well affect a tourism sector worker in Cairns or in Tasmania who, because there are no tourists from New South Wales, Victoria or the wonderful ACT, might find that they are stood down. This bill will give them no support. This bill will not assist those who are stood down as a result of lockdowns in other states depressing business activity. We know that's happening across the country. We know that there is a significant adverse impact on workers in non-lockdown states as a result of the lockdowns.
The government's bill is certainly a reflection of the importance of paid parental leave to many Australian families, and it illustrates the importance of parental leave in boosting gender equality. But we know that, under the coalition, Australia's international gender equity ranking has fallen and that paid parental leave in Australia is lower than the OECD average.
This bill addresses the immediate need of many Australian families who are in Commonwealth declared hotspots and who are unable to access the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Of course Labor won't stand in the way of that, but it comes late and there are gaps in its application. As a result of the way in which the bill has been drafted, it only provides certainty for those receiving a COVID-19 Australian government payment, which is defined as 'the COVID-19 disaster payment and another payment prescribed in the paid parental leave rules'. The prescription in the paid parental leave rules will be at the discretion of the minister. Parents receiving other forms of pandemic financial support must now rely on the minister to include them in the definition. Without that, if they're not appropriately included, they may not meet the work test rules. Labor will be closely watching the government's implementation of the bill to ensure these other eligible parents aren't left behind.
We will also be relying on the minister to positively respond to Labor's detailed amendment that I will be moving in the consideration-in-detail stage. That amendment would ensure that people who would otherwise be eligible for paid parental leave but are dealing with or fleeing from family and domestic violence are not ineligible because they don't meet the paid parental leave rules work test. Such an amendment would reflect the broad concern, of course shared across the House, about those who are at risk of family and domestic violence. It is my understanding that the government is considering whether or not it will support those amendments. Naturally, we will withdraw those detailed amendments if we're given a guarantee that the government will move them itself.
I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. This bill amends the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to assist people who have been affected by the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic to be eligible under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The Paid Parental Leave scheme is intended to support working parents. To be eligible for parental leave pay or dad and partner pay, a person must meet certain work test requirements, including having worked for 10 months out of a 13-month work test period and having worked a minimum of 330 hours in that 10-month period—that is, on average, 33 hours per month or roughly eight hours per week. There is also an income test of $151,350, which is tied to the primary claimant's, usually the mother's, income. She must not have earned over this amount in the financial year before her child's birth. But right now, because of the state imposed lockdowns resulting from the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic across much of Australia, many people who would otherwise have qualified for paid parental leave may no longer meet the requirements of the work test. People have been stood down or have experienced a significant reduction in work hours, affecting their ability to qualify for payment under the Paid Parental Leave scheme.
Amendments to the legislation are proposed to allow periods a person is in receipt of the COVID-19 disaster payment to count towards meeting the paid parental leave work test. The COVID-19 disaster payment is paid to provide financial assistance to limit the financial hardship for eligible individuals who are unable to work and earn an income under a state public health order for restricted movement. The recognition of periods in receipt of this payment as qualifying work is consistent with the objectives of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. This change to the legislation is predicted to support at least 14,000 individuals to remain eligible to claim either parental leave pay or dad and partner pay in the areas of New South Wales that have been in lockdown since late June alone. Naturally, it will also support a great many people who are currently being affected by lockdowns in my own state of Victoria as well as here in the ACT. These changes will ensure that parents with a genuine connection to work are able to access the government's Paid Parental Leave scheme. Without this amendment, parents who work part time or have been in lockdown close to or longer than the permissible 12-week period may lose entitlement to the payments under the PPL scheme due to failing the work test.
So this bill mimics the amendments that were made to the Paid Parental Leave Act during the peak of the pandemic last year. It will provide certainty and ensure that more parents, particularly women, can be supported to take time off work after the birth of their child through their demonstrated attachment to the workforce. These important changes to the PPL scheme are about ensuring that the government continues to provide support to working parents to spend time with their new children. I think all of us in this place support that worthy goal.
[by video link] Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I support the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. It is a very important piece of legislation. It will help to ensure that women here in Western Sydney who are pregnant at the moment and have lost their job because of the current lockdown don't miss out on paid parental leave. I also support the amendment foreshadowed by my friend the member for Fenner in this debate. It asks the government to make a further amendment to the Paid Parental Leave Act to ensure that women who are victims of domestic or family violence don't miss out on paid parental leave.
Some members may know that I have been calling for a change like this for a number of years, spurred by the story of a constituent of mine. Her name is Amani Haydar. Six years ago her mother was murdered by her father. She was stabbed 30 times in front of Amani's younger sister. At the time, Amani was five months pregnant. With her father in prison and her mother in a grave, Amani had to stop working and go home and look after what was left of her family—her younger sisters. A few months later Amani gave birth to a beautiful, healthy young girl. But, when she applied for paid parental leave, she was rejected by Centrelink, and she was rejected because she didn't meet the work test in the Paid Parental Leave Act.
To get paid parental leave you have to work in 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth of your child, and there are only a couple of exemptions to that. One is if you have a pregnancy related illness; another is if you have a premature birth. But what happened to Amani, domestic or family violence, isn't an exemption to the work test. We should change that for Amani and for women like her. Amani eventually received paid parental leave, but only because she picked up a pen and wrote to me and then wrote to the then Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, and he agreed to pay her paid parental leave as an act of grace. People like Amani, after everything that they have been through, should not have to rely on the good grace of government. This should be written into the law. It's pretty simple. If you're the victim of domestic or family violence while you're pregnant, you shouldn't miss out on paid parental leave because of this arbitrary work test rule. It's not right.
I've now been calling on the government to make this change for three years. I raised this in the parliament for the first time in September 2018. I again wrote to the minister about this as recently as February this year. The minister wrote back to me in May, again refusing to make this change to the Paid Parental Leave Act. The amendment that the member for Fenner has foreshadowed, if passed, would require the minister to consider this again and table a report in this place within 90 days on what they have done or plan to do and the reasons for it. But this shouldn't take 90 days. It shouldn't have taken three years. If the government wanted to they could move a substantive amendment and make this change tonight. The rumour is that they might just do that. I hope they do. I hope that they do that at the end of this debate.
Next week, on Monday and Tuesday, we have the National Summit on Women's Safety 2021. Hopefully, this important event might just shame this government into acting tonight and finally agreeing to amend the Paid Parental Leave Act for Amani and for women like her, who are victims of this terrible crime. They shouldn't miss out on paid parental leave because of it.
I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. Paid parental leave in Australia operates by paying parents, mothers in particular, for 18 weeks—90 payable days. It comes in two tranches: 12 weeks for immediate leave and then another 30 flexible days, which of course is equal to six weeks. It pays $772.55 a week. There's also a two-week benefit to the dad or partner which they can access as paid parental leave on a flexible basis. To qualify, parents need to meet a work test. I'm indebted to the previous speaker for this: you must be in employment for 10 out of the previous 13 months before the birth or adoption of your child, at a minimum of 330 hours over that period. That's around one day a week, so it's pretty generous in its terms in that way but people still need to meet those qualifications.
During the JobSeeker period we recognised that the state-generated lockdown periods were interfering with that process of people being able to maintain active employment, as it were, so we changed the rules to accommodate JobSeeker, but it was specific to JobSeeker and not to other government programs. Today, this legislation simply seeks to emulate the conditions that we produced for JobSeeker to ensure that we don't need to do this again, because it's a little more open in its wording and not specific to any particular program. So that's all good and I presume it will receive support from the other side, even though I notice that they've moved an amendment—which they seem to do with just about all the legislation they're going to agree with.
It's a modern world, where matters of equity between the sexes have become increasingly important. What was once a clear delineation between men's and women's duties has come much closer together, and that's a good and proper thing—even though it would be fair to say that in the majority of relationships the woman is still the primary caregiver, and we need to recognise that. It's a very important role.
There are a lot of reasons for why women want to be in the workforce. The first one, and most important of all, is that they want to be there. They want to for a lot of reasons. It can give them an outside input into their existence—to broaden their horizons, if you like—and provide some kind of worth and diversity outside that very worthwhile project of being a child-rearer. And it's an opportunity to do something more with their lives after that period of intensive caregiving has passed. It can also provide a certain amount of financial success and security for the family. And there's another good reason to have women in the workforce that's not necessarily about their benefit: it's for the national benefit. At the moment—and you would know, Deputy Speaker Goodenough—we have skills shortages right across Australia. We have this wonderful resource in women who are, in many cases, highly trained but taken out of the workforce for a period of time.
We want women to have the opportunity to have children—it's very important for Australia's future as a society that they do. We certainly don't want them to be in the position of feeling as though they cannot have children because of their time absent from the workforce. So that's what the Paid Parental Leave scheme is about. It would be fair to say that the support provided by government is working, because participation by women in the workforce is at a record high. The Prime Minister today, during question time, actually enunciated that for average weekly full-time earnings the gap between men and women is down to a record low of 14.2 per cent. I'm pretty sure he said the figure was—
An opposition member: It's gone up!
I don't believe that is correct. I believe it was 17.4 when we came to government.
An opposition member: It's just gone up in the last year.
Well, you may be able to actually put a figure on that, and there are reasons for that. Obviously we've had quite a change in Australia in the past 12 months—you may have noticed!—and there are all kinds of conflictions going on in the workforce at the moment. We are on the general trend that we are actually improving it on a regular basis, and that is off the back of government supports which have enabled women to come into the workforce. It's also off the back of our comprehensive support for the childcare system, which now sees parents earning less than $70,000 heading for an 85 per cent subsidy on their childcare payments. That doesn't come in until July next year, but these months are getting closer and closer by the day. So we can continually improve the lot of women generally, their access to the workforce, and this broadening or strengthening of the criteria around their ability to access the paid parenting scheme is to be applauded. I support the legislation, and I think it will go through this House with flying colours.
I rise to support the bill before us, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. This is an important and, I must say, much-needed bill that will come as some relief for many families around Australia. Australia's Paid Parental Leave, or PPL, scheme is intended to support working parents. To be eligible for paid parental leave pay a person must have worked 10 out of 13 months prior to giving birth and have worked a minimum of 330 hours in that 10-month period.
Like so many things, COVID means that meeting these requirements is difficult for many Australians. Last year, lockdowns and border restrictions were inevitable measures necessary to protect our public health. These restrictions are interfering with the working lives of millions of Australians, especially in border communities such as I represent. Across Australia people are being stood down or experiencing a significant reduction in work hours. This may, in turn, have an effect on their ability to meet the PPL work test requirements. The legislation will fix that oversight by ensuring that, if a person is receiving the COVID disaster payment, that time counts towards meeting the paid parental leave work test. Up until now, parents receiving the disaster payment may have found themselves ineligible for paid parental leave if they lost hours of work as a result of the lockdowns, and this would have been yet another hard economic blow for hard-hit families.
I'm rather surprised that we're only debating this legislation now, on the very last day of August in 2021. It's baffling really why the government has been so slow off the mark giving people the reassurance they need to make it through the pandemic. We had to make this exact change for JobKeeper last year, and it's taken until now for the government to realise we need to do it again for the updated disaster payment scheme.
When the government ended JobKeeper, even when the nation was plunged once again into lockdowns, they stubbornly refused to bring it back even though people and business were desperately asking for it. Indeed, many of the businesses that I talk to daily tell me that the current program is nowhere near as effective as JobKeeper. But, instead, the government has given us an entirely new scheme, the COVID disaster payment, and as the lockdowns of 2021 started to ravage Victoria and New South Wales, the support the government comes up with is, I'm afraid, ad hoc, constantly changing and seemingly based on the political criticism of the day rather than a sober assessment of what people actually need. Unfortunately, the Paid Parental Leave scheme has been no exception. Just consider this point: when the government originally introduced the COVID disaster payment it was only made available to people who were directly in lockdown, and this ignored the fact that many people who weren't themselves in a lockdown lost work because of the lockdowns. It was a mistake, and it was a rushed job. Thankfully, though, it was corrected. But imagine if the government hadn't corrected it. Families in regional Victoria whose incomes had been gutted by lockdowns in Melbourne wouldn't have had the PPL work test exemptions available in this bill.
For people living in border communities, the biggest problem with the government's approach to economic support during this pandemic is not simply that it's haphazard and insufficient; it's that it doesn't account for the additional burdens border communities have to face. If you live in Wodonga, you're affected by an outbreak in Watsons Bay. If you live in Albury, you're affected by an outbreak in Albert Park. If you live in Wangaratta, you're affected by an outbreak in Parramatta. The impact of the border closure last year was immense. It took 138 days of disruption, pain and crisis before those restrictions were lifted and our community came together again. But it was only a temporary reprieve. This year has been like groundhog day. People have been forced to obtain permits simply to get to work, to access health care, to take their kids to school and to care for elderly parents. In some cases when the borders close these things are simply not possible. Nothing in this bill recognises that these are additional border area impacts, because there's nothing in the COVID disaster payment scheme that recognises them either.
As a midwife, I know how important access to paid parental leave is for healthy families and parental bonding. We are living in a time when social networks are being put to the ultimate test. Grandparents who would usually pop by and assist with informal child care can no longer help out. Family budgets are tight and many will be counting on PPL months ahead of giving birth. This financial stress can have flow-on effects on the health of newborns who are entering this world in the middle of a pandemic. There is a growing body of empirical evidence that demonstrates very clearly that anxiety in parents has a direct flow-on effect with anxiety in offspring.
Families come in all shapes and sizes in this country, but the evidence shows that women have borne the greatest brunt of this pandemic when it comes to economic impacts. Women are also by far the greatest subscribers to schemes like PPL. So, when I see legislation like this, which adapts our Paid Parental Leave scheme for the realities of COVID, I think: 'Sure, good, this is sensible. But why didn't the government learn from last time? Really, why?' I think at the start of the pandemic, even for the first year, Australians were happy to cut the government some slack. It's a crisis that no-one saw coming and that no-one really knew how to handle. Mistakes were bound to be made, and I think we are a generous nation. But we're 18 months into this now, and people have been patient enough. So I support this bill, but I call on the government: please, think ahead, plan ahead and learn from what we experienced last year.
I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. I will start by asking why paid parental leave is so important. On this side of the House we really believe that the family is the building block of society and that keeping families together and strong is critical for society to function well and, indeed, to thrive. No-one knew that more than Sir Robert Menzies. That is why his government, in 1941, introduced a payment of just five shillings per week for each child in a family after the first. As the minister, it was actually Harold Holt's task to introduce a national child endowment scheme for baby boomers like my parents and their mothers. At the time, Mr Holt was the only bachelor in parliament, and he was widely featured in popular magazines like The Australian Women's Weekly, which was unable to resist the opportunity to declare him 'the godfather of a million children'. Of course, later, in 1966, he was Prime Minister for a short time before his tragic disappearance. I just wanted to highlight for the House that it was under Menzies that these sorts of payments came to the fore.
What was really significant about those first child endowment payments was that those payments were paid directly into the mothers' bank accounts. It was often the only money that women could call their own at that time. I remember my late mother, Barbara, talking about the child endowment, which by that point had been renamed the family allowance. It helped my mother pay for groceries and buy school uniforms, books and sometimes a small treat, like a finger bun and a cappuccino, after visiting a doctor after school on a weekday.
I haven't actually had a child myself, but my mother had four, and family payments from the Commonwealth certainly helped my parents provide for the four of us children. They were both low-income workers in the city of Playford, in Elizabeth, in South Australia. That was one of the country's manufacturing hubs at that time. My aunt, who I messaged earlier today about this area, said to me that no-one went to child care back then and that we relied on the family to look after us, if mum had to go to work, until we were four and we could go to kindy.
However, I am a step-grandmother. My grandsons call me Beebaa, which, of course, I love and enjoy. Like many grandparents around the country, I am missing those special occasions, like my grandson Archie's fifth birthday next week, and visiting my younger grandson, Freddy, in New Zealand at the moment, all due to COVID lockdowns. My heart goes out to and my thoughts are with those grandparents and parents who are separated from their children at this time during COVID-19 lockdowns. My heart goes out to them.
I of course support payments that assist families to raise their children and payments that strengthen the family unit and provide assistance where it is needed. I especially support the COVID disaster payment. But there are several other payments for families, and I will take a moment to outline them. There is family tax benefit part A and part B; newborn supplement and newborn upfront payment; multiple-birth allowance; bereavement payment; stillborn payment; single-income family supplement; childcare subsidy; additional childcare subsidy; double-orphan pension; parenting payment; and paid parental leave, or PPL, including parental leave pay, or PLP, and dad-and-partner-pay, or DAPP. The last two I mentioned are the two that are incorporated in this bill.
Our government is committed to the Paid Parental Leave scheme, which aims to provide financial support to parents of newborn children to allow them to take time off work after the birth to bond with the child and to support the health and development of mothers and their babies. This bill amends the Paid Parental Leave Act to provide that a person in receipt of a COVID-19 payment as specified by the Paid Parental Leave Rules or the COVID-19 disaster payment will be considered to be performing qualifying work for the purposes of the paid parental leave work test. This will mean that the period during which the person receives the Commonwealth disaster payment will count towards the paid parental leave work test and applies to both parental leave pay and dad-and-partner-pay claimants. That's fair enough. I think that's a reasonable measure. The COVID-19 disaster payment is provided by the Australian taxpayer and it should count as income during this time. For 2021-22, the Paid Parental Leave scheme is estimated to cost taxpayers around $2.26 billion.
I would like to speak about the COVID-19 disaster payment. It's there to support people whose hours of work have been affected by the lockdowns in Commonwealth declared hotspots, and the government is committed to ensuring additional support is available for people in all states and territories affected by the public health response to COVID-19. People who have lost between eight hours and 20 hours or a full day of work can receive $450 a week. There is a payment of $750 per week for those who have lost 20 hours or more of work. The payment rate for people on income support payments is $200 per week if they have lost at least eight hours of work or a full day. These payments are available now. Claims opened on 22 August for people affected by the lockdown in regional New South Wales, for any of those who may be listening at the moment. Services Australia is delivering that payment.
The easiest way to claim is online through myGov. It is actually a great time now to set up your myGov account and your myGovID account, so that when you are vaccinated there is a record of it that you can access readily. You just download the myGov app and the Medicare app, and you link those two accounts, and then up pops the name of your vaccination—all of your vaccinations, not just your COVID-19 vaccinations. You can access that information pretty readily. Mine was up there within 24 hours after I had my second COVID-19 vaccination on Friday.
The COVID-19 disaster payment is to provide financial assistance to limit the financial hardship of eligible individuals who are unable to work and earn an income under a state public health order restricting movement. The recognition of periods while in receipt of this payment as qualifying as work is consistent with the objectives of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Due to the state-health-ordered lockdowns and the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic across much of Australia, many people who would otherwise have qualified for paid parental leave might no longer meet the requirements of the work test. For those who have lost out, receipt of the COVID disaster payment will be proof that they have a connection to the workforce, and they will therefore be able to use their time receiving CDP towards the work test.
This change to the legislation is predicted to support at least 14,000 Australians to remain eligible to claim either parental leave pay or dad-and-partner pay in the areas of New South Wales that have been in lockdown just since late June. That's a lot of people to help. These changes will ensure that parents with a genuine connection to work are able to access the government's PPL scheme. Without this amendment, parents who work part time or who have been in lockdown close to or longer than the permissible 12-week period under the PPL scheme may lose their entitlement to the payments due to failing the work test. Nobody wants that, nobody wants that to happen to Australians, and that's why this bill is so important. We especially don't want any parents with young families to miss out on these payments. I'm sure Australians, and those opposite, will agree that this bill is a further measure to assist those Australians who need extra assistance. That's what this government does; it helps Australians in their hour of need.
In 2021 the scheme supported 169,029 people, mainly mothers, through parental leave pay; and a further 89,784 people through dad-and-partner pay. Here are just a couple of facts. Of the 169,029 PPL recipients from the 2021 entitlement year, 135,800 had a child born or adopted on or after 1 July 2020 and were therefore eligible for the newly introduced flexible paid parental leave. Of the 135,800 eligible for flexible PPL, only 0.17 per cent, or 228 people, have sought to share some or all of their six weeks of flexible PPL with their partner. This is something the government are aware of, and we're actively engaging with stakeholders and business to encourage them to ensure that their employees know about this flexibility. Parents who are not eligible for PPL are encouraged to test their eligibility for the range of other payments that are available, including newborn supplement, newborn upfront payment and parenting payment. Eligible fathers or partners of the birth mother may also access DAPP, irrespective of the mother's eligibility for PPL.
To close, this bill will provide certainty and ensure that, through their demonstrated attachment to the workforce, more parents, particularly women, are supported to take time off work after the birth of their child. This bill introduces amendments aimed at supporting working parents who have had their work affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia to continue to access payments under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. I support the bill and I commend it to the House.
[by video link] I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. This bill makes necessary amendments to the paid parental leave work test arrangements to ensure that those who have lost work as a result of the government imposed lockdowns are not disqualified from receiving government paid parental leave and the dad and partner pay package.
Currently parents need to have worked at least 330 hours, approximately one day per week, for 10 of the preceding 13 months to be eligible for paid parental leave. They also can't have more than a 12-week gap between each workday in a 10-month period. In the current situation of lockdowns, up to 14,000 families would be prevented from receiving paid parental leave without this amendment passing. This bill amends the work test to include people who are receiving the COVID disaster payments, regardless of the rate they are receiving. Business owners who are receiving state based business support grants such as the New South Wales COVID grants for small and medium enterprises will also qualify, provided they can demonstrate some worklike activity. This could include, among other things, a musician rehearsing for performances or writing a new song.
I support this bill and I understand the urgency with which it needs to pass. New South Wales has now been in lockdown for over two months, and this parliament won't sit again for another six weeks. If this bill were not to pass, up to 14,000 families, through no fault of their own, would be disqualified from receiving paid parental leave. Participating remotely, I'm acutely aware of the lockdown situation in New South Wales and in Sydney. We have now been in lockdown for over two months and it's clear that this is desperately needed. This being the second lockdown on the northern beaches, what's interesting is that the Northern Beaches Hospital, which services the electorate of Warringah, is actually reporting a baby boom. This is occurring across the country, but particularly in our region, probably because we also had a lockdown some nine months ago at Christmas time. It is important for families that this bill passes and that new parents have access to leave payments despite the lockdown.
We also need to talk about the broader reform needed to the Paid Parental Leave scheme. We've got gross inequalities throughout our system that need to be fixed. The system embeds gender stereotypes and discourages women from taking on higher-paid jobs. The Grattan Institute has conducted research that shows that, by the time she retires, the average 25-year-old woman who goes on to have a child can expect to have earned $2 million less over the course of her working life than the average 25-year-old man who becomes a father. Contrast that to a childless woman and man, for whom the gap will be about $300,000. Not that that's a good thing, but it is dramatically different.
Despite desperately needed changes to improve flexibility of the scheme going through last year, it's quite outrageous that the Services Australia website still states that our Paid Parental Leave scheme of 18 weeks paid leave at the minimum wage is available to the 'birth mother'—that's how the website labels it—the 'initial primary carer of an adopted child' or 'another person caring for a child under exceptional circumstances'. Secondary carer's leave is called—again, this is incredibly discriminatory—'dad and partner pay', and is just two weeks at minimum wage. This gendered language needs to be updated urgently to reflect that we're living in 2021 and to align the language on the Services Australia website to the kind of flexibility measures that were actually introduced by the government last year. I urge the government to note this and urgently amend their website.
The language and the discrepancy means that, in Australia, 99.5 per cent of paid parental leave is taken up by women. It reinforces the stereotype of women taking on greater caring responsibilities and unpaid work around the home. The income test applied to both leave arrangements further reinforces the gender pay disparity. Each form of leave is individually income tested. If the mother of the child earns more than $150,000 per year, she is ineligible for the leave, regardless of the income of the father. So a family where the mother earns $152,000, for example, but the father earns less than $150,000 is ineligible for paid parental leave. But, conversely, in a family where the father is the primary earner, he can earn millions of dollars per year while the mother, who may work a day a week, can still claim the full paid parental leave entitlement. This is ridiculous. The gendered division of labour reinforced by our paid parental arrangements is holding Australian parents back. Australia has high rates of part-time work by women compared to other similar nations. In Australia 37 per cent of women work less than 30 hours per week. That is the fourth-highest percentage in the OECD. Improvements in women's workforce participation and economic security can only be sustained if there is more equal sharing of unpaid care. We must improve this system.
The Grattan Institute, the Parenthood group, Parents at Work, UNICEF and Karitane all support the view that more gender-equal paid leave promotes more equal sharing of paid work and care and that parental leave design is one of the most important policy levers impacting the sharing of paid and unpaid work. It could also benefit families and children to have more full engagement with both parents. Australia has one of the least adequate paid parental leave schemes of the OECD. The average length of paid parental leave among OECD countries is 55 weeks, while Australia has 18 weeks. Paid parental leave in Australia is granted to one parent, the primary caregiver, whereas in other OECD countries it can be shared. More equitable paid parental leave schemes are important. They will encourage fathers into caring roles, improving their long-term bonds with children, participation in unpaid work in households and appreciation of the work involved in raising a child, and they will provide primary carers with the opportunity to return to their careers sooner and more sustainably. There are a number of options on the table, and I urge the government to address this issue. So I welcome the bill and support the need for a temporary alteration of the work test, but broader reform of our scheme is definitely needed.
[by video link] Some of the financial impacts and inequities of the COVID-19 pandemic are not immediately obvious, yet they can have profound implications on people's lives, especially women's lives. The Paid Parental Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021 goes some way to addressing one of those inequities, and that's why I rise to support the bill. However, the Morrison government has taken way too long to bring this bill forward. Even now the bill fails to provide an exception to the paid parental leave, or PPL, work test for victims of family violence. Labor's proposed amendment would address that oversight. It must be said that the Morrison government continue to be missing in action on women's issues on so many levels. They haven't even accepted without qualification the 55 recommendations of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins's Respect@Work report. I'll return shortly to the Morrison government's failures when it comes to supporting women across the nation.
The passing of this bill is essential to ensure parents who cannot meet the PPL work test because lockdowns have prevented them from working can gain parental leave. Across the nation, people are being stood down or are having work hours significantly reduced due to COVID-19. People who under normal circumstances would qualify for the leave payments under the PPL scheme can't currently meet the working-hours eligibility requirements. Through no fault of their own, these parents are becoming silent victims of COVID. Many families are already battling financially and emotionally in this pandemic. It's devastating that currently they are now also potentially being denied parental leave. For many people who have lost work hours or their job due to COVID lockdowns, the current PPL work test requirements are simply impossible to meet, through no fault of their own.
We know paid parental leave is vital for so many families. Anyone with children understands the challenges of that initial period after a new baby comes into a family. We know there are around 300,000 births in Australia each year. About half of those parents would normally access PPL, so this amendment has the potential to assist many thousands of families in a really meaningful way. This bill allows a person receiving an Australian government COVID-19 payment or the COVID-19 disaster payment to count it towards the work test requirements for parental leave pay and dad and partner pay. These payments are made to those who live or work in a Commonwealth declared COVID-19 hotspot and have lost hours of work due to lockdown restrictions.
I've seen the hardship caused to people by lost work due to COVID across my electorate of Corangamite. Make no mistake, the hardship for people and families is real and harsh. That's why I'm concerned for parents, particularly women, who cannot meet the PPL test requirements for accessing paid parental leave. We know women have borne the brunt of this pandemic, and this is why Labor is proposing an amendment to this bill which introduces an exemption from the paid parental leave work test for victims of family violence. Currently there are exemptions from the paid parental leave work test for women in dangerous jobs or women who cannot work because of pregnancy related illness. However, women who would otherwise meet the work test but for the impacts of family violence are not currently included. Our Labor amendment would correct this oversight.
Labor calls on the government to support this amendment because, while it potentially impacts upon only a small number of people, it will be of enormous significance to those people and families. The passing of this Labor amendment would be especially poignant in light of the national summit on women's safety that is coming up next week. It would be a sign of support and good faith to the women of this nation who are not currently safe in their own homes. Women who are subjected to family violence should never be punished for being victims, least of all those being deprived of their rights to paid parental leave.
Sadly, good faith with the women of Australia is not something that the Morrison government has a strong track record on. It was only after concerted pressure from Labor that the Morrison government was embarrassed into waiving the fees for parents who have had to keep their children at home from child care due to the current COVID-19 restrictions. This commonsense move will not only ease financial pressures on families by allowing them to keep their children enrolled; it will also provide long-term benefit to childcare service providers.
Today is Equal Pay Day, but on this day the Morrison government is missing in action when it comes to the gender pay gap and closing that gap. Figures from the Australian government Workplace Gender Equality Agency show the national gender pay gap has risen by a further 0.8 percentage points over six months, to 14.2 per cent According to that agency, it will take 26 years to close the gender pay gap. Women on average are earning $261.50 less each week than men. This is appalling. This gender pay gap is reinforced by paid parental leave, which is means tested. Effectively, the scheme disadvantages a family where the woman earns more than $151,000 and her partner earns less than $151,000. The Australian Gender Equality Agency director, Mary Wooldridge, was quoted in the media this week as saying that the existing parental leave options are a 'big driver of inequality in the workplace'. She said:
There shouldn't be a distinction between primary and secondary carers, and men and women should be equally able to make those choices …
When asked if government and employer parental leave policies were appropriate, Ms Wooldridge reportedly said:
I think everyone can do more, and needs to do more.
Well, in the Labor Party we are doing more. In 2020 the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins provided the Respect@Work report to the government. This report was a comprehensive examination of workplace sexual harassment. It made 55 recommendations to help eliminate sexual harassment, change legislation and create safe workplaces. The Labor Party has accepted and, in government, will implement all 55 recommendations. In sad contrast, the Morrison government has only accepted the recommendations wholly in part or in principle. This is not surprising, but it is a profound concern to the women in my electorate and across the nation. Labor supports the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021, but we see it as just one part of many changes that need to be made to address the many issues of equality for women more broadly. It is the Labor Party that will stand with women, and it is the Labor party that will always fight for women when it comes to respect in the workplace, gender equity and representation, and opportunity for all.
In summation, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021 introduces amendments aimed at supporting working parents who have had their work affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia to continue to access payments under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The Paid Parental Leave scheme aims to provide financial support to parents of newborn children to allow them to take time off work after the birth to bond with the child and establish breastfeeding.
In order to be eligible, parents must meet a range of eligibility criteria including satisfying the requirements of the work test. This bill aims to allow parents to include a period in receipt of the COVID-19 disaster payment as qualifying work for the purpose of satisfying PPL work test requirements from 1 July 2021. Qualification for the CDP is dependent on losing income and work as a result of living or working in a Commonwealth declared COVID-19 hotspot, ensuring that this measure is targeted and can be accurately applied to those affected while also ensuring integrity. Parents in receipt of CDP will be able to count the period they are receiving the payment towards their work test for parental leave pay and dad and partner pay. These changes will ensure continued access to the Paid Parental Leave scheme for workers who had their employment affected by the impacts of a Commonwealth declared COVID-19 hotspot.
While expecting parents are forced to cease work due to local and state lockdowns, they may be unable to meet the paid parental leave work test despite the fact that they have had a long work history and would have met the work test if not for the impact of the lockdown on their ability to work. Under this measure, parents in this situation would still be required to meet the same work test requirements as all other parents, but periods in receipt of CDP will count as qualifying work. Currently, qualifying work includes a period of paid work, a period of paid leave and a period in receipt of JobKeeper payment. This bill helps to ensure that more parents, particularly women, can be supported to take time off work after the birth of their child through their demonstrated attachment to the workforce.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Fenner has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.